What Happens Next? Ecological Impacts of the California Oil Spill

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Home / What Happens Next? Ecological Impacts of the California Oil Spill

Oil spills can affect near shore wildlife such as the snowy plover. Image by Schick.

There’s an emergency in California, and it’s not a wildfire or a drought. California’s been hit hard once again, and this time it’s from an oil spill from a land-based oil pipeline that ruptured in the Santa Barbara area on Tuesday.

Two large oil slicks covering over 9 miles have formed on the coast, and at least 21,000 gallons of oil reached the ocean.

The pipeline was moving oil at about 84,000 gallons an hour when the line ruptured, and the oil poured into a drain that went into the ocean.

California Oil Spill and Near Shore Wildlife

The oil was first spotted mid-day on Tuesday. On Refugio State Beach, oil has coated the shoreline. This shoreline is a rich environment where two ecosystems meet.

Animals who use these environments often move between land and water, using the best of both environments to make a living. However, this means that when disaster strikes the place where land and water meet, these animals are impacted. Birds use these beaches as rich migration, breeding, and feeding grounds. Oiled pelicans have already come into rehabilitation centers.

The threatened Snowy Plover, a small shorebird, has been the subject of protection efforts in the area as a local program has worked to help the plovers recover their former breeding sites. For threatened populations, any extra harm to their habitat or feeding areas can have an unwelcome impact on that population’s success.

Oil Spills and Ocean Wildlife

While crews have deployed booms and skimmers to collect the oil and prevent it from spreading, the spill may also affect larger ocean wildlife such as seals, sea lions, and whales. One particular species to note is the gray whale. April and May are the gray whale migration season, as these whales migrate north to Alaska to feast on krill in the cool waters of the north. Approximately 26,000 whales move up the coast, sticking to areas near the shoreline to protect their new calves from ocean predators.

Since whales tend to move through a spill zone, they often suffer fewer immediate impacts than those animals who live, feed, and breed in the spill zone. If a whale were to come into contact with oil, it could irritate its skin and lungs. However, although it often appears that larger marine mammals see less damage to their population from an oil spill, a spill does move toxic materials into the ocean environment and could have longer-term effects on marine mammal populations.

After the very large Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, scientists observed that the resident pod of orca whales suffered a steady decrease in population. While the whales’ environment is changing in many ways, the addition of oil into the environment could be a factor in their decline.

Although some of the whales moving through the Santa Barbara area are younger and smaller, they are moving through and are at the tail end of their migratory season. Many have passed through the area already.

Oil Spills: The Spreading Impact

When an oil spill occurs, we often think of the shorebirds that will be affected. However, a spill can spread to touch many parts of the ecosystem over a short and long time period as oil moves into beach sand, down onto the ocean floor, and into ocean-based food chains.

Far from the immediately-visible effects, oil spills have many other impacts that are not as immediate or as clear. As long as we drill for oil and move oil in boats and in pipelines, there is the possibility of another oil spill to add uncertainty to the already-challenged California environment.

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